Women like Jayalalithaa are good for societies like ours
She had to win battles, like everyone in public life. But as a woman in a world structured for men, her battles were doubly challenging
I was 11 years old when, in accordance with astrological counsel, chief minister Jayalalitha of Tamil Nadu became chief minister Jayalalithaa in that very land where Periyar once acidly denounced peddlers of such counsel as “arch exploiters" and “parasites". Of course, changing one’s name can be defended as an entirely private concern, and in any case Jayalalithaa really entered my personal universe not on account of her reported enthusiasm for numerology, but when, that same year in 2001, she imprisoned the antagonist of her political universe, M. Karunanidhi, in one of the more infamous episodes in their long-running vendetta.
It was my then best friend Venkatesh R. who transported the news from his Tamil household in a mood of great agitation, which was difficult to take seriously from a classmate who otherwise only demonstrated such feelings when dealing with fractions and the decimal system. I carried my observations on his odd behaviour to my not-too-politically-inclined mother, who informed me that the lady in question owned 750 pairs of shoes (one wonders if her long-time aide and that one-time video-renting entrepreneur Sasikala will fill all the shoes in question if she does succeed in gripping the AIADMK party by the horns.)
I was older by the time I discovered that Jayalalithaa was more than the sum of her shoes and numerological beliefs, and that this pale woman of ample proportions who animated an entire state and its people for decades had, like all human beings, layers to her personality—leaving out the rumoured bullet-proof vest—and facets that were fascinating, inspiring, frequently disturbing, but marked with that complicated quality known as determination. Of course, given that even the world’s great villains have volumes of determination, this is no exoneration of the imperiousness, that tendency to bully the press, and those instances of blinding ostentation that deserved the electoral disasters they showered upon Jayalalithaa on more than one occasion.
She was a film star once, I learnt, who ran around trees and batted her eyelashes while actors lifetimes older lip-synced songs about the ecstasy of youth. She wasn’t naturally inclined towards such graceful prancing, having shown early on as a child an inclination towards a more studious professional future. But compulsions facing her mother and the need for money meant that plans for university were discarded and the trees and colourful sets of Tamil cinema became the backdrop for the early period of her career. She became a (heavily made-up) star on screen, translating thereafter, like her predecessor at the helm of the party, MGR, the hero worship this inspires into astonishing political success (minus the make-up).
She had to win battles, like everyone in public life, but as a woman in a world structured for men, her battles were doubly challenging. She didn’t emerge kinder for the experience, though, welding armour instead around her battle-scarred person, and behaving largely like those very men who resented her. She manifested arrogance, about which one could be sympathetic by viewing it as a reaction to the trauma she faced in the defining years of her political career. But she wasn’t the type who sought sympathy either, seeking to be worshipped but also feared, more an empress than an accountable democrat. She cared for her people, but as a grand matriarch would for subjects and not as an elected official with a time-bound mandate.
That Jayalalithaa had tremendous intelligence and ruled well—and I don’t think populism is an entirely misguided concept—in great measure is certain. That, however, she demanded unquestioning obedience suggests that instead of creating institutions, she installed herself as the premier institution in sight. Many who venture political opinions called her a venal tyrant, rejecting her narrative of the lone warrior prevailing against odds that appeared in male (and legal) avatars. Middle-class frustration was vocal as she cornered the limelight that power invites, but only made choreographed appearances under it. She revelled in her status as puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader), and tolerated nothing that challenged her role as the goddess of millions who made good policy while also dispensing reliable mixer-grinders.
Strong women are good for societies such as ours which still privilege a very male vocabulary of power. And I grew to admire Jayalalithaa and the personal story, with all those ingredients of grit and resolve, of the woman who rose to these heights, inspiring others to also fight their battles undaunted. But it is Jayalalithaa’s political legacy that must now stand scrutiny. For she did much good as an administrator but could not rise beyond herself and create something that could outlive her—she was a phenomenon and with her passing dies also the ideology that energized her followers for years: an ideology contained within the numerologically sound 12 alphabets that constituted her name.
Much has been written of men who rotated at Jayalalithaa’s feet, but not enough has been said about how few were the women she brought into positions of power. She carved out for herself an indelible niche, but didn’t create an enduring space so that others could reach where she did, less bitterly and with fewer battles on the way. If a woman does find her way to a niche somewhere close in terms of power even if not immediate appeal, that would be through the transformation of chinamma Sasikala into general secretary Sasikala of the AIADMK, a production currently underway, the prospects of which we must wait to watch.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. He tweets at @UnamPillai.